View Full Version : Portsmouth fishermen seek city support

12-18-2008, 09:30 AM
Portsmouth fishermen seek city support

Written by Hannah Lally Thursday, 11 December 2008 committee seeks to make fishing fleet a matter of community concern local fishermen
In the hustle and bustle of a business day, Portsmouth’s geographic positioning allows us to pause and look out over the harborand enjoy our waterfront view.

But it’s easy to look past the struggling fishing vessels that are anchored to this city. While these boats may seem to do little more than bob in the periphery of a Prescott Park picnic, they were once the cultural and economic backbone to the Port City. Currently, however, Portsmouth’s historically prosperous fishing industry struggles to remain afloat.

“The commercial fishing industry is going though some tough times,” said Erik Anderson, of Portsmouth’s Fishing Fleet Committee. He attributes industry stress to current economic decline and “thousands of pages of regulations.”

The chief regulating bodies are the N.H. Fish and Game Department and the National Marine Fisheries Service, which control the basic size, sex, location and quantity of fish that may be taken, as well as the transportation, sale, inspection and processing of all marine species. Though governing agencies have been around for decades, Anderson reports that these regulations are “the most extreme that we have ever seen.”

Lifelong fisherman John Borden remembers what it was like to fish 20 years ago, before the reels of regulations. “It used to be, if you went hard or you worked hard, you could make money, but now it’s become a wash,” he said.

Based on current federal policies, Portsmouth’s groundfish fleet is only permitted to fish 24 days out of the year, a regulatory tactic intended to help rebuild regional stocks of haddock, cod and yellowtail flounder.

In order to maintain full-time employment, fishermen must diversify. Through the course of the year Borden will transform from scallop hunter to lobster trapper to groundfisherman, all of which require separate permits and equipment.

“You can’t get by on one boat,” says Borden, now lobstering for a fraction of the money that he used to make doing the same amount of work.

The New England Fisheries Management Council and National Marine Fisheries Service are both in the process of adopting new rules for 2009 and 2010, but the industry expects to see more red tape in the coming years.

Anderson believes the troubles of the fishing fleet should be a matter of community concern. He hopes that with more exposure, local citizens, businesses and lawmakers will recognize the vital role fishermen play in maintaining Portsmouth’s identity as a working waterfront community.

Portsmouth’s Fishing Fleet Committee is working on ways to reconnect the shore with its ships. Fishing Fleet Committee member and City Councilor Eric Spear says the goal is to increase recognition of the economic, historic and cultural importance of the Portsmouth fishing fleet and to find ways to economically support local commercial fishing.

On Nov. 18, the committee met with Seacoast Local, Seacoast Eat Local and the Portsmouth Chamber of Commerce to brainstorm ways the community can better interact with the fishing fleet.

From this collaboration emerged a key point: You cannot buy local fish locally. Most of the fish caught by the Portsmouth fishing fleet are promptly sent to packaging and processing plants in locations like Seabrook or Gloucester, Mass. This system is not ideal for fishermen, who receive less return from a fish processing plant than they would by selling directly at market.

“There is a great desire among Seacoast residents to connect more with the people who produce their food,” Spear said. “We see this manifest at the farmers’ markets. People are willing to pay more for quality products, especially in this area.”

The sea-to-land disconnect exists primarily because there is no system in place to connect the demand side with the supply side. Ideas for correcting this include opening a fish market on one of the Portsmouth piers and hosting cooking demonstrations at community events.

Borden said he would love to see some markets set up, but does have some reservations. He appreciates the dependability of selling to a fish dealer. “When you have to distribute to different places, you can spend half the afternoon running around trying to get rid of your product,” when you should be spending that time fishing or getting ready for the next day, he said. “It is easier to just have one guy that will take all of your product, all of the time.”

The committee also hopes to open the local fish market to area restaurants and grocery stores, but businesses also like the reliability of the current system. The draw of purchasing fish from a large processing facility is that stores can pick up the phone and say, “Hey, I want 20 pounds of salmon by Tuesday,” and that’s what they get. But if consumers demand local fish, then restaurants and grocers will find a way to abide.

Increasing the availability of local fish will also require consumers to reshape their dining habits. A product bought directly off the pier might be a whole fish, head and all. This product might force consumers to learn new skills, like how to fillet a fish or cook an unusual species.

Spear also points to the impact of the global food trade on consumers’ expectations of food. But, just as we are learning from local farmers that berries are a seasonal item, a buy local fish campaign will teach people to appreciate a wider variety of fish, instead of expecting tuna year-round, Spear says.

The Fishing Fleet Committee is gathering information to present to the Portsmouth City Council on the current and historical state of affairs. Anderson insists that “Portsmouth is a waterfront community” and that it is marketed as such. Tourists expect to see a working waterfront, and it would be a mistake for the city to overlook the importance of supporting local fishermen, he said.